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Italy Takes Aim At Fake News With New Curriculum For High School Students


This week, Congress is grilling lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter. Lawmakers want to know about the role that tech companies played in Russia's attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election and spread fake news. The problem of fake news is a global one. In Italy, the government thinks it's so serious it's teaching high school kids how to spot it. A new curriculum - with some support from Facebook - begins today. We should also note NPR and other major news organizations get money from Facebook to make some video content. Reporter Christopher Livesay reports from Rome.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: It's third period at Rome's John Cabot University. Students are recent high school graduates from Italy and the United States. Communications professor Antonio Lopez is devoting today's lesson to fake news.

ANTONIO LOPEZ: Does fake news exist in Italy?


LIVESAY: Student Barbara Greco.

GRECO: There was, some time ago, this big fake news about - it was just a picture and spread on social media. And it was this picture showing two black people - they were not immigrants - who were two famous people.

LIVESAY: Samuel L. Jackson and Magic Johnson, to be exact - the well-dressed movie star and basketball legend were vacationing in Tuscany this summer when someone snapped a photo and created a meme that identified them as migrants wasting their welfare checks on Prada. Elettra Cocca says students like her tend to trust whatever their friends post to social media.

ELETTRA COCCA: Like, we look at just the headlines and that's it, so we don't really check.

LIVESAY: The Italian government thinks that's a problem. So starting this week, it's training high school students how to spot fake news. The initiative is the brainchild of Speaker of the House Laura Boldrini.

LAURA BOLDRINI: (Through interpreter) Disinformation - fake news - can damage people, businesses and the social fabric of this country. It can bend public opinion based on lies. That's why we'll teach our young people how to detect bogus information and to become fake news hunters.

LIVESAY: The experiment will be rolled out in 8,000 schools to start, showing students how to check the source of an article and to create blogs to expose hoaxes.

PETER SARRAM: Media literacy programs in high schools or in middle schools are always good.

LIVESAY: Peter Sarram is a professor of communications at John Cabot. Social media is where most students get their news, he says, not without pitfalls.

SARRAM: They are at the mercy of what appears on their newsfeeds. I think that defenses are down in a way. Now, of course, they can tell the difference between The New York Times and Infowars, but they might not be able to tell the difference between the many different kinds of Infowars that are out there. And maybe The New York Times won't even appear on their newsfeed.

LIVESAY: Half the Italian population - 30 million people - use Facebook. That's why Italy is teaming up with the social media giant in its new initiative.

LAURA BONONCINI: Exactly. No false news there.

LIVESAY: Laura Bononcini is Facebook's chief of public policy in Italy. To be clear, she says Mark Zuckerberg isn't about to start putting fake news warnings on articles.

BONONCINI: Definitely not. Also because it is very complicated, actually, to define what is the false news. And we don't want to be - and we shouldn't be - the arbiters of truth.

LIVESAY: The same should go for the government, says professor Sarram. He applauds Italy's new program but hopes governments don't use fake news as an excuse to curtail free speech, much like Benito Mussolini did in his day.

SARRAM: Fascism is the clearest example - no? - of that kind of intervention. With the excuse of controlling fake news, it seems as if many governments or many states feel that they have now sort of the legitimacy of intervening in saying - well, this is OK and this is not OK. And that's always problematic.

LIVESAY: For its part Facebook's role in the initiative is limited to promoting posts that show high school-age students how to compare competing sources of information and ultimately choose for themselves.

BONONCINI: What is important is that users, especially the youngest ones, have all the tools.

LIVESAY: And, she says, that they think before they believe everything they read and hear.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES'S "LAGUNA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay
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